Category Archives: Design

The first rule of laws

REUTERS/Toru HanaiOne of the many joys of moving to the USA was that it became much easier to hide my rich and extensive ignorance of football. Mostly it never comes up, and mostly if it does I can just blithely invent answers to any questions. Mostly I don’t get caught.

But the World Cup has ended that run, while simultaneously providing plentiful resources for solving the underlying problem. Thus, yesterday, as Brazil squeaked to victory, I read The Laws Of The Game. It turns out that not only does football consider itself above having anything as commonplace as ‘rules’, it also considers itself above having to specify which game its laws apply to: there is only one game, and that game is football, would seem to be the first unspoken law of The Laws Of The Game.

I’d recommend giving it a read – it’s shorter, lighter, more thought-provoking that you might expect. I don’t yet know how it compares to the rulebooks for other professional sports, but I’m willing to bet that some rule books (American Football especially?) are rule-ier and bookier. The ‘Powers And Duties’ section, which starts on page 71, is a particularly entertaining introduction to what it can take to GM a game of soccer.

This differential – between laws and rules – got me thinking, though, especially after writing up Dog Eat Dog for last week’s storygames round-up. Dog Eat Dog is a table-top game about colonialism, in which one player takes the role of an invading culture, and other players the roles of individual Natives responding to that invasion, and it hinges on one key rule: “The (Native People) are inferior to the (Occupation people).”. This, as I understand it, is an amazingly powerful concept. It means that in all and any kind of conflict, during the normal run of play, the player in the Occupation role will always win over the other players (you can read more about how it works in practice here). It’s a crazy thing for a game to try to pull off, and it takes some interesting mechanisms (which you can read about here) to make it into a playable, rewarding structure. I’d love to see other if other games have solved – or could solve – the same premise. anyone fancy theming a jam around multiplayer games where one player always wins?

It’s such a powerful rule that Liam Burke, the game’s designer, talks about it in this excellent interview as “the core of the game….maybe it’s too obviously the mission statement!”. And I think he’s right – I think this rule is more than a rule. I think this rule is different from the game’s other rules. Dog Eat Dog looks to me like a game whose rules are organised around a law. 

And I had that in my head when reading Tim Rogers‘ excellent review of football. He notes this important rule:

Only the keeper is allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Every other player on the field must use any part of their body other than their hands. This is, as my friend and colleague Bennett Foddy puts it, “A clever inversion of human biology.”

(You can, and should, see more of Rogers and Foddy ranking their top ten best sports sports here, at their cracking Indiecade session)

This made me realise that football shouldn’t be called football. It should be called anything-but-your-hands-ball. (Although, as the Hulk, and The Laws Of The Game will tell you, that might properly be anything-but-your-hands-and-your-arms-if-moved-purposefully-ball). It feels to me that this might be the real Law of football. The other rules are derived from this core principle: you must not handle this hard to control round thing with the one part of your body well equipped to handle hard to control round things.

Guitar Hero has always felt to me like a game structured in the same way. The law of Guitar Hero is that Guitar Hero is a five-buttoned game for a four-fingered species. So much of what is challenging and satisfying about that game comes out of this imbalance.

There’s a great post which I can’t find, but is probably linked to somewhere on Tom Armitage’s excellent blog , which Tom Armitage reminds me is by Wes Erdelack (thanks both!), that discusses Resident Evil 4, and whether or not it’s a ‘proper’ survival horror game. My half-memory of it is that it addresses the theory that RE4 isn’t ‘proper’ because it doesn’t have a hallmark element of the genre: resource scarcity. Survival horror games are canonically defined by eking out tiny supplies of ammo and health. RE4 is too generous, and therefore doesn’t count. The riposte is that RE4 does have a scarce resource you’re constantly managing: space. RE4 is a game continually optimising the distance between you and all enemies. If you’ve got space, you can win. If you don’t, you won’t.

In Guitar Hero, your scarce resource is fingers. You need five. You’ve got a likely maximum of four. A key element of the strategic choices you make when you play is how to solve that problem, especially if you’re a smaller-handed human. Deciding, moment-to-moment whether you’re reaching down for a green, or leaving your weaker, shorter pinky in charge of reaching up for an orange is not that different from deciding, moment-to-moment, if you’re going to risk getting closer to those three villagers in order to buy yourself some runway for the approaching Dr Salvador.

I’m not sure how far this idea can stretch Some games seem like easy candidates for having a law. Ikaruga (which – pow! – is on Steam), say, is a game organised around the law that a player can render some, but never all, threats into bonuses at will. It can sort of pass the Tetris test (a game organised around the law that there is no way to stop blocks falling). I am not sure what the law of Borderlands 2, or Carcassone is, both of which are glaring at me from the shelf, but I maybe just haven’t thought about it long enough.

What I do know is that at an early design stage, I sometimes either have far too  many possible rules, or far too few. There’s a big mushy space of untested, and sometimes untestable, possibilities, from which I yank out rules out, or jam new ones in. Putting my weight on each rule in turn and asking, ‘is this secretly a law? What would happen if I organised any other rules subordinate to this one?’ feels be a useful tool for finding game formulations that might otherwise stay hidden. 

So is it a law of games  that games have laws? I’ll stick my neck out as far as Eugenio Mena, the Chilean left-back did, ahead of that Brazil game: I am deeply convinced that it might be.

Postscript: for those who are scathing about others’ difficulty in understanding the offside rule, I only note here that it takes 14 separate diagrams to fully explain it in the otherwise lean and precise The Laws Of The Game. For those how have difficulty in understanding the offside rule, I note that those diagrams are pretty useful!

 

Once Upon A Wonder: A Story Game Guide

aka Because Twitter Said So, pt 1 of an occasional continuing series.

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I recently asked on Twitter if people could point me to story-creation games.  We spend a lot of time worrying about the quality of stories *in* games – authored narratives designed to intermingle with gameplay –  but I was more recently wondering about the ability of games to author stories of their own. I knew a little, but not nearly enough: Story Cubes is now something I regularly pack if ever we’re going away with small children. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a game I’ve known about for years but never played. I grew up on Consequences,  and the ‘he said…., she said…., and the consequence was…,’ rhythm of it still echoes in my head to this day, but that’s close to the full extent of my experience with the genre.

Twitter was very generous with its recommendations. I haven’t had a chance to play any of these yet (apologies therefore for any errors in the descriptions), but I thought it might be a fun resource for other people to refer to.  As such, I’ve dug some of my favourite recommendations out of Twitter, and assembled it here in no particular order.   Here we go…

Dog Eat Dog is a game about colonialism and identity, the first task of which is described by its author Liam Burke as “As a group, you work together to describe one of the hundreds of small islands in the Pacific Ocean”. One player takes on the role of *all* of an occupying force, representing “their capable military, their quisling government, and whatever jaded tourists and shrewd businessmen are interested in a not quite pacified territory,” and all other players become individual Natives, responding as best they can to the actions of the colonizing power. This little review gives the flavour of it very nicely, and its critical acclaim could hardly be higher.

Fiasco is much better known (and a game I should have remembered), very neatly described by its creators as “like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one.” It does need dice, but it doesn’t need a GM, and all kinds of different genre scenarios for it abound. It has a reputation for being accessible and ferociously funny, and you can read a good precis of its game systems here.

Monsterhearts I had never heard of, and is the first of multiple Buried Without Ceremony games in this list. What is it? Why, Monsterhearts “lets you and your friends create stories about sexy monsters, teenage angst, personal horror, and secret love triangles.” I have mentally filed it under ‘DIY–X-rated–Buffy’. Time will tell whether or not that’s a fair assumption, but it hopefully got your attention. Lauded also for its open-minded approach to sexuality.  I hope you’re taking notes, Tomodachi Life.

A Penny For My Thoughts immediately appeals to me, since its structure suggests a story-telling game where you don’t have to take on too much responsibility for forging your own narrative. The set-up is one of amnesiac patients and a guiding doctor. Each player posits a few fragmented sense memories, and then other players lead them to form a more complete picture of their lost pasts. Pennies act as memory tokens: you pay one to a player each time you accept their prompt about the story of yourself. Emily Short has an illuminating and enticing review here.   Side-note: there’s something about the penny economy that makes me think about the token-for-information economy in the excellent Hanabi, which (side-side-note), reminds me I ought to write a thing about cleverness of that next.

My Daughter The Queen Of France sounds like it’s going to be a clapping game, but turns out to be a story-telling game “directed by William Shakespeare”.  The ruleset is available here, written by Daniel Wood, and worth reading just for the pleasure of it. On first appraisal it seems like an insightful structure to break down what is otherwise a pretty tall order: a mutually improvised play (up to an including actual soliloquies) about the estrangement of a father and a daughter. It’s absolutely the kind of game I’m alway too chicken to play, because it seems like a huge amount of creative pressure. Would love to hear from people with more experience of it. Can it ever be a lightweight game? Is it terrifying for wallflowers?

Durance gives Jason Morningstar his second entry on the list, after Fiasco, and it sounds to be a very apt palette cleanser for My Daughter The Queen Of France. He describes it as “a fast-paced, low-prep, highly collaborative game designed for 3-5 players and one or more sessions of play and includes a detailed, engaging science fiction setting.” It’s set on a prison planet, where inmates and guards are fighting together (and each other) for survival.  From a quick read, I’d say that ‘low-prep’ maybe translates as ‘relatively low-prep’ – there’s only so much short-cutting you can do if you want to play in a story world as rich as the one Durance allows.  This review might give you your bearings more – love the idea of each player making a solemn vow, the breaking of which unleashes direful consequences.

Universalis is not to be confused with strat-mainstay Europa Universalis. The story-telling Universalis seems to be not just GM-free, but setting free. It positions itself as the ‘unlimited stories’ game, and (a little like Penny For My Thoughts’) uses a token system through which players agree on the tenets of the story they’re creating, and resolve disputes that arise when those tenets are broken. Wikipedia’s description of that dispute resolution process is a little dry, but it’s not going to stop me adopting it in all and any business meetings from here on in:

..a Complication results if the two players cannot come to an agreement. Established Facts can be drawn on in the Complication, and all players have the chance to weigh in with their coins. When everyone has spent the coins and called on the Facts that they wish to, a die roll is then used to resolve the issue (with the dice rolled depending on how many Facts and Coins each side has). The winner gains new Coins, and gets to narrate the result of the Complication.

In A Wicked Age looks to me to have more of a traditional RPG structure, but geared to a fast-start and newcomer friendly.  Here’s a flavour of it, in the very first instructions in the game: “Someone choose an oracle. Your choices are Blood & Sex, God-kings of War, the Unquiet Past, and a Nest of Vipers. It doesn’t matter who chooses.” Dispute resolution here isn’t about coins or even (surprisingly for the RPG-style set-up) dice; instead conflicts are resolved through agreement between the players involved.  Reviews like this one suggest that playing over multiple sessions is particularly fun.

Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North is a game name I can’t read without getting goosebumps recalling Reepicheap sailing off for the Utter East. It’s available on a pay-what-you-can basis, and from what I understand of it, Reepicheep’s epic, unknowable voyage is not a terrible touchstone. Set inside a fiction that tells of the Knights of the Order of the Stars, as they struggle through the dying days of the Northernmost People, Polaris can take 12-40 hours to play, recommended to be split over 3-8 nights. It sounds daunting, but also strangely seductive. Next time I wake up in an unexpected Narnia, it might be time to dig in for a long weekend and see where Polaris could take us.

A Quiet Year is, in turn, not to be confused with Ian Bogost’s game-poem A Slow Year. Or maybe it ought to be cross-referenced with it. A Quiet Year isn’t so much a story-telling game as a map-drawing game, and from the map comes the story.  It’s also a Buried Without Ceremony game, like Monsterhearts, which means that like many of their games, it can be purchased with real world Good Deeds instead of cold hard cash. Using a standard deck of cards as a set of prompts, it asks players to draw the map of what happens to a small community as it lives out a quiet year following a previous calamity and before the arrival of the unstoppable Frost Shepherds.  Quintin and Leigh have a very illuminating review here, so I’ll leave it to them to tell you more.

Pantheon (not to be confused with Bill Willingham’s mostly-forgotten Pantheon or the upcoming Rise Of The Fallen MMO or any of the other four hundred Pantheon things you’ll get if you try to google it) is an out-of-print story-game compendium by Robin D. Laws (another multiple entrant on this list). It introduced the ‘narrative cage match’ structure, where players outbid each other to use genre cliches to construct a story. I think there’s an in-print edition in French, if that’s of interest – there’s new content, and a new title: Hollywood Party.  Or, if some rule tweaks would help you get a feel for it, try these.

Gray Ranks takes us back to Bully Pulpit and Jason Morningstar again. Fascinatingly tied to real dates in 1944,  the game casts you as a teenage Polish partisan,  during the uprising against the occuping Nazi forces towards the end of the Second World War. Like Polaris, A Quiet Year, and even My Daughter The Queen Of France, this is a game that knows it ends in tragedy, with that tragedy sharpened here by the real events that inspired it. More alluring to me is this description of ‘the grid’ – a spatial representation of a character’s mental state which sounds like a thing I tried – and failed – to build for the Dreams Of Your Life project.

The Grid is a map of sorts, that tracks each characters emotional state. At the end of each chapter, players move their character on the Grid according to success or failure of the mission and personal scenes. The corners of the Grid are to be avoided, as they represents extremes such as Martydom, Nervous Breakdown, Suicidal Depression and Derangement. If you hit the same corner twice, then your character is written out of the story in the following chapter, if not sooner.

Microscope, another Lame Mage/Ben Robbins game, makes a big promise: “Want to explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon? That’s Microscope.” The introduction describes it as ‘fractal gaming’: you don’t play a character, things don’t happen in chronological order, the story emerges as you dig down from a single grand statement to more granular detail. From a quick skim it seems less ‘gamey’ than some of the other games above – no coins or bidding here – and it feels like another that puts a big premium on players’ innate ability to spin a yarn. But there’s no arguing with the scale of that promise..

Kingdom, which just happened to be next on my list, is yet another Lame Mage/Ben Robbins title. It’s a game not so much about kingdoms themselves, but about the dynamics of the people who run them, and as such can be set pretty much wherever you like. Robbins notes “Want to play a star-spanning empire? A warship in the Age of Sail? The PTA of your local elementary school? Those all work.” I’ve not had a chance to read the rules of this one, but my gut tells me that it would be a stellar match for some ‘The Wire’ storygaming. As a fun aside, Kingdom is partly conceived to let you double-down on Microscope’s fractal nature. Use Microscope to develop the broad beats of your civilization’s story, and then use Kingdom’s  roles – Power, Touchstone or Perspective character types – to figure out who were the players, and what were their purposes in each crossroads moment.

Gloom, aka That Game With The See-Through Cards, is another game I’m ashamed never to have played. Gloom is also a tragedy game, but on this occasion played for laughs. It gives each player a family, and then tasks them with destroying each family member’s self-worth, before killing as many of them as possible. Like I said, laughs. From the outside, its aesthetic gives me a slight scent of Lemony Snicket, and in my defense, it’s perhaps the fear of Jim Carrey flashbacks that has kept me away. My instinct would be Gloom is one of the least creatively intimidating games here – the cards supply your story components, and you simply choose where to inflict them (although there’s scope of embellishment if wanted), and it’s hard to imagine a more cathartic story structure .

Star Trek: The Adventure Game is co-designed by no less than Greg Costikyan, just in case you were inclined to be put-off by the brand. Very excitingly, it’s designed for one or two players: solitaire story-telling games are an especially pleasing prospect to me. It’s grounded in TOS Star Trek, which (in the  event it’s not as frequent a Netflix guilty pleasure for you as it is for me) you may have forgotten was empirically great TV – wildly charismatic ensemble cast, big ideas, a real sparkle in its eye.  There’s a video review of the game here, but from reading this overview I’ve formed the impression that it might combine some of my favourite things about the the factional subtleties in Reiner Knizia’s wonderful two-player Lord Or The Rings: The Confrontation with the lightweight but enormously satisfying emergent stories of FTL.

Dark Cults is another out-of-print classic, I fear, presaging Once Upon A Time, which we’ll get to further down this list. Considered by some the best horror story-telling game of all time, it’s another two-player story game. This review gives you the gist nicely: one player is Life, the other Death, and you’re both watching over a gentleman called Horace Phineas Lovejoy as he leaves his house for an evening stroll. Which force will win out as his evening unfolds? The game consists of a deck of cards – characters, places, atmospheres, dangers and escapes – and the players (or teams of players) take it in turns to draw and play a card that fits the story and the sequence. I didn’t manage to find any easy way to buy or download this, sadly – keep your eyes peeled in promising stores, or do what you can with resources like this fan revamp. 

Hillfolk is both another Robin D. Laws game and another Kickstartered project (like Dog Eat Dog, Durance and others), although Hillfolk romped home with nearly $100k. Hillfolk is an Iron Age setting for Laws’ DramaSystem rules engine, designed to create sessions where “the dice and rules fall away, and the entire group spontaneously enters a collective zone of pure story and character.” A precis of Laws’ precis of the system goes a bit like this:

Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it….In play, a simple currency system rewards you for giving in (as a granter) or being rebuffed (as a petitioner.) This encourages you to act like a dramatic character, or real person, sometimes giving in and sometimes standing your ground. If you accumulate enough drama tokens, you can spend them to require a granter to make a significant emotional concession.

I read some varied reviews of the system – some finding it deeply flexible and making a whole new kind of in-game storytelling possible, and others finding it arbitrary and frustrating – would love to hear your experiences.

Tales of the Arabian Nights doesn’t come cheap, but nor does its reputation. Quintin Smith is on hand again to explain why,  but almost any reviewer or player will echo his positivity. There are lovely conceits at the heart of the game: it has a ‘fudge’ die; how far you can travel is determined by your wealth. The setting is also a gimme: it’s a story game about a story about stories about storytelling.  How could it fail? Although, what’s clear is that Arabian Nights is maybe exactly the kind of game Laws wasn’t talking about when he describes the dice and the rules falling away: instead, its story engine in pretty dependent on looking up tables and then cross-referencing the Book Of Tales. Worth it nonetheless, by all accounts. – and, I hear, also playable in solitaire mode.

One Upon A Time is where we should have started, if I was doing this thing in a sensible order. Now in its third edition, its gameplay revolves around ‘Ending Cards’ – each player has one, and is hoping to draw and play cards that guide the collaboratively developed story towards their ending. The setting is one of prodigiously traditional fairy tales (you can almost hear Pantheon sharpening its cliche-dealing blades..), but with the obvious benefit of giving anyone and everyone their bearings in a rich and familiar storyworld. Indeed, just skimming the original card list will give you a sense of the tone as well as a basic gloss of the gameplay. Definitely a strong contender on this list of something to try with non-roleplayers, non-gamers, and/or non-grownups.

Story War is another Kickstarter success story, and having pocketed $350k plus, developers Cantrip games have made the whole thing downloadable for free as a printable PDF. The game, as best as I currently understand it, is Apples To Apples-driven storytelling with pop-culture nerdolgy content. Which is to say that each round a different player takes the role of judge. Other players select warrior and item cards (familiar archetypes from numerous fandoms), reveal their hands, and improvise a story about how their warriors beat other players’ warriors. The judge decides who wins. I can’t say for sure if it’s appeared on Big Bang Theory yet or not, but I know where I’m putting my money.  My assumption is that if you thrive on the Apples-to-Apples/Cards Against Humanity structure of playing to please the judge, then this is a glorious extension of those games. If not, then perhaps not? Comment angrily below if my assumption is unfounded.

Machine Of Death is a game based on a book based on a comic based on some free clip art, which is a very dismissive way to describe Ryan North’s majestic Dinosaur Comics. The book is an anthology of stories explore the concept: what if there was a machine that could tell you how you were going to die?  The game of the book, which raised more than $500k on Kickstarter (I swear I’m not doing this on purpose). It shares with a number of the games above a significant narrative trope: you know when you start that things are going to End Badly.  The game tasks players to assassinate a target in the manner predicted by the Machine Of Death. To do so, they have only their knowledge of their target’s fear and desires, and three randomly-selected items. They must spin a story of how they can accomplish the necessary killing with the unrelated items, with a dice roll determining success each step of the way. Fail a dice roll and you have 90 seconds to extemporise an alternative approach. It sounds zany and chaotic, and I will leave you to determine your own emotional responses to those particular adjectives.

The Resistance is the only game on this list that I know for a fact you can buy from Target.  Often recommended to Werewolf/Mafia fans, it uses a similar sort of structure. A small group of resistance fighters are opposing a brutal regime. But some of their number are spies. Players take it in turn to launch missions, selecting the players to send to complete them. Spies can force a mission to fail, increasing their faction’s chance of winning, but risking suspicion and discovery. Its ruleset definitely offers some refinements to classic Werewolf (no players get eliminated, there is at least some definite information), but I’m curious if it deserves its reputation as a story-telling game. I wouldn’t classify Werewolf as such, even if I’m still dining out on some pretty entertaining Werewolf anecdotes. Resistance players – does this game push the narrative further? Would be interested too in how its mechanics compare to other hidden-agent board games like the much more rough-and-tumble Saboteur.

Aye Dark Overlord, I think, is a game about put-upon minions improvising excuses for why their Evil Genius boss’ plans have gone awry yet again. Make an inadequate excuse and you will receive a Withering Look from your boss. Receive three Withering Looks and you’re out. This seems like a deeply likeable premise  – this review gives a good sense of what it takes to do justice to it in practice, which I suspect to be a roomful of people with the gift of the gab and a history of terrible summer jobs. 

And that’s it for the list! Incomplete, ill-informed and imprecise, but hopefully helpful as a starting point if nothing more. Thank you to @JamesWallis,@greenghoulie@jurieongames@s_bura@pat_of_kemp@Sarn@Quinns108@scd@poppa_f @Devin_Wilson@LeighAlexander@gavininglis @tobybarnes @suegyford, @yoz, @tiedtiger and anyone else I missed. Really appreciate you clueing me in, and apologies if I’ve butchered or omitted anything you love.

Drunk* Dungeon at GDC

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Jolly proud to announce that Drunk Dungeon featured as part of Doing It On The Table, Eric Zimmerman‘s wonderful compendium of table-top games. The game got to be in some pretty stellar company, and it was a ton of fun thinking about how to revise it to make it work in a conference setting. Turns out it involved more B-Daman Crossfire Marble Reloads than you might expect, which is how you find out that Bomberman has been hanging out on a TV show about shooting marbles for the past 15 years.

* It should really have been renamed Sober Dungeon, since we couldn’t do drinks, but I’d miss the alliteration.

Trapped in your radio

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A few weeks ago I had the chance to participate in the great BBC World Service show ‘The Forum’ – the Forum takes key idea each week, and then asks three people from differing fields to talk about their take on that idea. This week’s show was about traps, and they had the very fun idea of getting a wildlife photographer, a neutrino hunter and a game designer to talk about what traps mean to them.

I got to be the game designer in question, and you can listen to either the game designer part of the show here or the whole thing (highly recommended) here.

Basically, it’s a fat joke.

A few people have asked me about the thinking behind my new Gamasutra columns, “Five minutes with…”. While I’ve been explaining it, I’ve been aware of a voice in the back of my head, saying something scathing but too indistinct for me to catch. I realised the other day it was a memory of this legendary diss, delivered by the Reverend Sydney Smith on hearing that a friend had set his cap to a widow twice his age and four times his size:

Marry her? Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her: he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy, but trigamy: the neighborhood or the magistrates should interfere. There is enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish. One man marry her!–it is monstrous. You might people a colony with her, or give an assembly with her, or perhaps take your morning’s walk round her,–always provided there were frequent resting-places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half-way, and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her. In short, you might do anything with her but marry her.

And this, I’ve realised, is how I’ve come to feel about reviewing games. Review a game? You mean a part of it, surely. No-one could review a game all herself. There is just so much going on there, so many thousands of interesting design choices to talk about, so many experiences to share. I’m simply not equal to the task of reviewing a whole game anymore, nor willing to keep deleting the dozens of interesting little points in order to make way for the big, sweeping statements. So instead I’m taking little walks around them, with frequent resting places. Five minutes at a time. The second of the columns was about Minecraft – I’m hoping to reply to some of the very astute comments it generated here later. Next month I suspect I might be finding even five minutes of play too daunting, and talk about some particularly juicy menu screens. I think Rev’d Smith would approve.

Penn and Teller and more Holy Cow

So it turns out sleeping after a Penn and Teller show is impossible. Your brain’s just far too fizzy.

The whole show (as the previous post probably indicates) was an inspiration (except, if I’m honest, the nailgun bit, which I’m pretty sure any competent musician could have pulled off for real after a bit of practice and a deep breath). What got me thinking about my own work, though, was the people-wrangling.

The night before, I and the other creators at the WonderLab had run Couple Up for an invited audience. Couple Up was a game we’d created that very afternoon, and only tested once, and was full of imperfections (some deliberate, many not). Running it was a process of getting 30 people, who hadn’t come to play, to understand, perform and enjoy a complex physical, social game simultaneously. It went, all things considered, pretty well. But it was a bodge, and required an amount of on-the-fly rule evolution and bit of improv stage-management. As I spend more time designing and running meat-space games, I’m only beginning to learn the dark art of introducing games to players and facilitating and shaping their experience. Godding Werewolf is one thing, getting 30 people to make choices and speak to actors and move around rooms is many orders of magnitude tougher.

So where to turn to for advice on how to take someone who doesn’t know the rules and get them to do the things you need them to do? I’d never thought of how abundantly obvious it is: magicians. Magicians’ whole careers often depend on their ability to pull people from the audience and get them to do the right thing. I’d thought before about what they might have to teach videogame designers, but hadn’t thought about how valuable they’d be for training physical game runners.

Leaving the show tonight, I had the chance to talk the idea over with Stuart Nolan, who extended the idea to specifically learning from busker magicians. Rather than swapping magic tips, he’d had the chance to learn crowd management from buskers. It’s crucial to learn how to stop the audience applauding, apparently, because applause signals an ending, and so people start to leave. But how do you perform a trick in such a way that it amazes and delights people but disinclines them to applaud? Stuart Nolan knows, but I don’t, and now I want to learn.

It’s probably a better use of my excitement-induced insomnia than trying to get a hang of the needle trick.

Penn and Teller and Holy Cow

Stall seats for Penn and Teller’s return to the UK after a 15 year absence. I’m not going to try to do justice to the 19 impossible, beautiful things they showed us all. Nor am I going to try to explain them – I’m taking Penn’s advice and living in the happy persistence of mystery, rather than clutching at unfounded rationales. Go, if you at all can. There do seem to be a few tickets left.

Mostly, it made me think about making and running games. More than the magic, what astonished me tonight was the quality of the workmanship on show. The staging, the timing, the writing, the costumes, the performances, the precision, the invention, the experimentation. Understanding the man-hours that had gone into the evening was impossible – understanding the man-hours that had gone into each individual trick equally so. And, while Penn’s mischevious promises that the nail-guns and tank-drownings weren’t actually dangerous were persuasive, it was perfectly clear that the level of precision required to bring the show off were astonishing.

And so I left with one over-riding feeling: that everything I’ve ever made is a sack of shit. And I’m proud of the things I’ve made. Proud of the people I’ve worked with – of their talent and their diligence and flair. But nothing I’ve ever made came anywhere close to the standards of excellence I saw on stage tonight. Even Royal Opera House performances, my previous benchmark of enacted perfection, don’t quite cut it. My standards simply aren’t Penn and Teller’s standards. They wouldn’t work with me. They shouldn’t work with me. I accept a margin of error, and a rate of failure, which they wouldn’t. They’re six sigma – beyond six sigma – and I’m two-and-a-bit-of-sellotape-and-fingers-crossed sigma.

Most of us are, to be honest. Most of us accept – particularly when we’re making digital, coded, things, that there will be bugs and flaws and things we bravely trumpet as ‘working as intended’.  But seeing tonight’s show reminded me of reading the account of the way NASA code – of how you make things actually work, rather than just mostly work. It’s easy, it turns out – it’s just agonisingly slow, expensive and thorough.

Penn and Teller’s example hasn’t left me daunted, however. It’s impossible not to be inspired by their warmth and hard-earned pride. I don’t want to make things like their things, but I do want to make things as well as they do, and it makes me happy that it’ll take me the rest of my life to learn how.

Microknackered

After a frankly frenzied week of preperation, the splendid Richard Lemarchand’s GDC microtalk session is finally over. I know I’m not supposed to say this cos I was part of it, but it was by far my favourite session of the conference so far. So many brilliant ideas coming at you so fast! It was like the Dopler Effect in reverse.

I just wanted to tip my hat again to Leigh Caldwell, whose blog shows how he applies his expertise in behavioural economics to games and other interesting systems, and whose help was invaluable in putting my talk together. Other references for the talk are on Delicious, tagged GDC10Margaret.

‘Well, duh,’ she opined.

250px-don_draper_wikiI promise I’ll stop talking about story sometime soon, but I woke up today with an actual spike of How Can I Have Been So Stupid? embedded between my eyes. Often when I’m inveighing against story, I’m actually warning people off plot and dialogue, since both of these are things games often do badly. The problems with plot are pretty clear – the challenge of keeping things credible over a 10-, or 20-, or 80-hour game run, the tensions interactivity can bring, the banality that the superhero-ness of your central character often encourages – but I have been wondering of late why dialogue is so hard to get right. Dialogue is, after all, a well-understood problem. Finding good script writers is hard, certainly, but a long way from impossible, and there are agencies and commissioners with buckets of experience in pointing you to serious talent. So why – and I’m sure it’s coincidence that I’ve just been playing InFamous – is it so rare to find dialogue in games that isn’t, frankly, wretched.

I was chewing this over when I ended up on the Wikipedia page for Mad Men, which quotes Don Draper’s pitch to Kodak that so resonantly closes the first season:

Nostalgia.
It’s delicate, but potent…
Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.
It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device… isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.
It goes backwards, forwards.
It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called the Wheel.
It’s called the Carousel.
It lets us travel the way a child travels.
Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

It’s the killer scene in a killer episode, but on paper it’s a strange beast. Definitely closer to poetry than prose, and highly controlled and yet florid at the same time. So what makes the difference? John Hamm makes the difference. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with games.

A good actor can save a bad line. Good actors can save an entire script full of bad lines, and film and TV actors are able to deploy their bodies and their faces as well as their voices to carry the day. Relying on voice alone is a taller order. Despite my devotion to Radio 4, and my addiction to The Archers (Woe for Matt and Lilian! Hooray for Tom and Brenda!), I find most radio drama hammy and wearing. Money Box Live is a more appealing listen than From Fact To Fiction.  And these are not less talented actors (I’m not even enjoying Simon Russell Beale as Le Carré’s Smiley, for heaven’s sake), nor necessarily less talented writers. It just seems to be harder to help dialogue shine without the visual cues. (Please, don’t think for a moment I’m denigrating radio – it has an intimacy and an intensity that TV, film and theatre can never match. But scripted drama seems to be something it doesn’t do as well as it can documentary, discussion, prose and poetry.)

The trouble is, of course, that game voice actors have it even harder than radio voice actors. Our digital actors are almost universally acting against the talents of the people supplying their voices, rather than with. Gammy animation, glassy eyes, bad path-finding, tongueless mouth-holes: we still have a lot of problems to combat before we even level the playing field, let alone produce actor-avatars which can help save patchy writing.

So that, with my apologies, is the blindingly obvious revelation that I had this morning, a decade after everybody else. Dialogue is one of the single hardest things there is to write, and games are the single hardest environment to write it for. No wonder we struggle.